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My Take on 'Carnivale'

I haven't watched that much of Carnivale -- the artsy pay-cable stuff clogging up the TiVo hard drive is the wife's side of the street while mine is exciting-yet-ultimately-infuriating sporting events -- but what have I seen pretty much illustrates both the good and bad thing about television shows on premium cable channels.

The good: No show on HBO ever gets canceled midseason. Ever. Ratings can tumble. Critics can make lemon-faces and farting noises every time the show gets mentioned. But HBO will never ever change horses midstream. It may wait until it gets to the other side of the stream before making a frantic call to the glue factory, but the network toughs things out no matter how stinky and ill-advised a show turns out to be. If HBO can stick with "The Mind of the Married Man" for a couple seasons, it will endure just about anything.

Which is good, if you happen to enjoy watching Carnivale. Because, as I type this, there are fewer and fewer of you.

Carnivale's ratings are poor, even by the lowered expectations of premium cable channels, and they're only getting more so, according to the Nation's Newspaper -- it's lost nearly half its audience since its Sept. 14 premiere. If Carnivale aired on a broadcast network -- assuming we can bind and gag our disbelief long enough to pretend that the likes of ABC or NBC would ever greenlight a dense, cryptic drama about dirty, dirty carnies who may or may not symbolize the ultimate confrontation between good and evil -- it would have already been replaced by Friends reruns or America's Funniest Groin Injuries or whatever programmers would throw on the air to staunch the bleeding. HBO doesn't have advertisers to appease or Nielsen pressures to consider -- the network already has its subscription fees in hand. So Carnivale viewers can invest the time and the requisite brain-power into the show without any reasonable fear that HBO will yank it mid-season for repeated airings of 10 Things I Hate About You.

Now the bad: Without the threat of imminent cancellation hanging over their heads, the producers of Carnivale have little incentive to keep things moving the hell along.

Like I said, I haven't been paying close attention to the show -- a shame since Carnivale appears to be the first program in history that requires you to consult the course syllabus immediately prior to each broadcast -- but it seems like you're likely to come away from any given episode just as confused as you were at the start of the hour. There's nothing wrong with a little murky plotting, incomprehensible dialogue and 50 minutes of meandering action leading up to the big "Sorry folks -- nothing's happening this week either" finish, so long as there's eventually a payoff. But I'm not convinced that there will be, largely because creator Daniel Knauf has yet to give the impression that he has any more an idea on how he's going to wrap up Carnivale than I do.

An ending? I have to come up with one of those? Um... OK... that filthy Okie over there? Um.... he's Jesus! There. That oughta hold 'em until season two.

I'm not saying that television needs to be uncomplicated fluff to be enjoyable. But I also don't think a show should require its own set of Cliffs Notes to be considered intelligent. There has to be some sort of middle ground, somewhere between the extremes of a typical According to Jim episode and Dostoevsky: The Series!, but right now, Carnivale just ain't finding it.

Give me something -- a clue, a hint, an indication that paying closer attention will be worth my time, or, at the very least, a head's up whenever Adrienne Barbeau will be taking her top off. Otherwise, it's back to the exciting-yet-ultimately-infuriating sporting events for me. At least until The Sopranos comes back.


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